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A Portrait Of Portrait Artist Mike Mills


You know Mike Mills. If not the man himself, then surely you know his work: Perhaps it was the lips-and-cherries print he made for Marc Jacobs that caught your eye, or his What They Bought photo exhibit at Colette. Maybe you own a copy of the Air LP Moon Safari, whose sleeve Mills designed, or maybe there’s an X-Girl T-shirt with a Mills illustration lurking in the back of your closet. If you saw Thumbsucker, starring Tilda Swinton, you know Mike Mills—he directed the film. If you’ve enjoyed music videos made by Sofia Coppola, or Patrick Daughters, or Shynola, you know Mike Mills, because he co-founded the Directors Bureau, the company that produces their work. And if you happened to be driving around Hollywood in 2007 and saw a wild animal staring at you, uncannily, from on high, then you know Mike Mills, because he’s the guy who mounted the billboard. All of which is to say, even the most casual culture consumer will have had the chance to encounter a Mike Mills creation at some point in the last 15-odd years. His work is only slightly less prevalent than his influence. Now, much of his output has been collected in the book Mike Mills: Graphics Films (D.A.P.). Co-edited by Mills and Aaron Rose (Beautiful Losers) and published this February, the volume does yeoman’s work condensing Mills’ adventures through many kinds of media into a story of one journey through certain obsessive themes—love of music, alienation, adolescence, flags. All of this and more will be up for discussion tonight at the Hammer Museum in L.A., where Mills is to be interviewed by Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy as part of Los Angeles Art Weekend. In the meantime, Mills gives a sneak peek into his headspace.

The fact that you’re going to be interviewed by the Rodarte girls makes intuitive sense to me. On the other hand, it really makes no sense at all. How did you wind up on this bill together?

I kind of like that you think it’s a little off. I don’t actually know Kate or Laura that well—I mean, I mostly know them socially, and I’ve always had great conversations with them, so I guess I figured it would be more interesting to have them conduct the interview than any of the usual suspects. They’re super-smart, they both studied art…I don’t know, there’s not much more to it than that. Unless it’s some kind of midlife crisis thing. That’s always possible.

I thought it might have something to do with suburbia. They live in Pasadena; your work has always expressed a hovering interest in that kind of environment.

That was one of the funniest things about putting together the book—I mean, I’m going back and looking at all this work I’ve done over the years, and it strikes me, wow, I’m redundant.

Redundant as in, you tend to re-circle certain themes?

Yeah. Like, it’s interesting to me how much of my work is about depression, loneliness, feeling alienated. That’s why I started making art in the first place, when I was a teenager—it was a way of talking about depression without it being shameful. Creating a space where it can be humorous. Where I can handle it. I do see that there’s been growth within that theme. In the beginning, it would be a poster, you know, with the word “sad” and a dead bird. And that was about me just trying to write that word and have it be OK. But by the time I made Does Your Soul Have a Cold? a couple years ago, I’d gotten to a place where I was comfortable talking about depression. And so I could confront the thing in a more socially engaged way.

Does Your Soul Have a Cold? is a documentary about people in Japan who take anti-depressants. When you work on something so personal to you, is the process very different from when you’re designing a book jacket or directing a music video?

The process is different, but the impulse is pretty much the same. A record for Sonic Youth, or Thumbsucker, it’s still me using my work as a way of figuring out my life. And making it more…I guess I’d say “easy.”

You work in so many mediums. Is there any one that you enjoy most?

I think what I enjoy most is changing. I mean, directing a movie is like running for president—it takes years, and you have to put every ounce of yourself into it. And that’s exhilarating, but by the time I finish a film, I’m ready to go home and draw. That’s what I’ve been doing the longest, drawing; at this point, it’s the way I think. Really though, as much as I go back and forth between projects, and kinds of projects, to me it’s all just one big project. I think that becomes apparent when you look at the book, because for the first time all that stuff is in one place.

When you were putting together the book, was there any single work of yours that surprised you, looking at it again?

The series of photos I did for Colette, What They Bought, that was a surprise. I guess about a dozen years ago now, I photographed all the objects in my nieces’ bedroom. When I was done, I put the pictures away and kind of forgot about them. Frankly, I don’t like most of my work. So I tend to do that—put things away. But taking those photos back out, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were so…complete. I mean, the thing I do most is create portraits. That’s how I think about a lot of my work—the photos I take, all the films I’ve made, just a lot of what I do in general. And if I’m going to do a portrait of someone, I want them in their room. Because the clutter in someone’s room is very revealing to me. I’m articulating this now, but seeing those shots of my nieces’ stuff, it was like, wow, there it is. Full-form.

What are you working on now?

Oh, you know—a bunch. I’ve got a script for a new film I’m hoping to shoot in the fall, and I’m doing a little book for Nieves about Winnie the Pooh, and another book about the creation of a wildlife corridor in Los Angeles. That’s been amazing. And then I’m still working on my posters and stuff for Humans, in Japan; that’s just a continuous thing that I do.

My curiosity about how you find time for all these projects has suddenly and urgently been overtaken by a desire to know why you’re doing a book about Winnie the Pooh. Explain, please.

It’s a history. There’s a lot people don’t know—like, they don’t know that there was a real bear named Winnipeg, and that the real Christopher Robin had a teddy bear, Winnie, that he named after that bear, and that the real Christopher Robin hated that his dad wrote that book. And then, of course, Disney comes along and creates this whole industry, and most of us, that’s all we know. So it’s sort of a history of everyone who’s ever owned the rights to Winnie the Pooh. Only, for me, it’s a story about childhood, and corporations, and the turf they share. I feel like that turf is where all the interesting stuff happens. You just have to look.

Photo: Damiani, 2009